Children and coronavirus: A social protection view

MARCH 25 ― Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin recently announced several fiscal measures aimed at alleviating the economic fallout caused by the Covid-19 crisis. These initiatives include a RM600 million allocation for the Ministry of Health, allowing Employees Provident Fund (EPF) contributors to withdraw RM500 monthly for the next 12 months, and deferment of the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) monthly loan repayments for six months.

Analysts have criticised these initiatives as insufficient and have proposed other fiscal measures to aid individuals and businesses during this difficult time.

However, children are once again left out from the conversation, with an absence of child-centred policies.

It can be argued that measures aimed at the general population would still benefit children through their caregivers. These broader schemes however do not take into account the specific vulnerabilities that disproportionately affect children ― especially those who live in poverty and low-income households.

The social protection contextWe need to bear in mind that Malaysia’s absolute poverty line has been criticised for being too low for our upper-middle income status. Should we adopt a relative measurement similar to OECD countries, the percentage of children who live below the poverty line in Malaysia will jump to 12.6 per cent.

Malaysia’s social safety net for children suffers from significant gaps even without the threat of Covid-19.

According to a recent Unicef situation analysis, the Department of Social Welfare’s current per capita financial assistance for children of RM253 per month is the lowest since 2013. The Bantuan Sara Hidup cash transfer programme dispenses an additional RM120 per child on top of the standard RM200 payment to B40 households, but this cash grant is too small and infrequent.

To exacerbate matters, not all who qualify receive the financial support. A 2018 study of children living in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur found that 34 per cent of households did not receive support from Malaysia’s Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) cash transfer programme while only 4 per cent of households received support from the Department of Social Welfare ― despite being eligible.

Covid-19’s impact on our children

The relatively few reported cases of Covid-19 among children globally is good news.

But the socioeconomic ramifications of Covid-19 can rob children of the things they need most for survival and development ― such as nutrition, health, shelter, water and education. Disruptions to these growth prerequisites can adversely affect children’s future health, education, and productivity outcomes. These effects are even more amplified for children and families who are already vulnerable due to poverty.

As highlighted by economists Muhammed Abdul Khalid, Nungsari Ahmad Radhi, and Hamdan Abdul Majeed, the movement restrictions do not only cut incomes of many small traders, but also deprive households of the affordable sources of food and supplies available at “pasar tani” and night markets.

The closure of schools during this movement control order also means the loss of at least one nutritious meal for some children, for instance students of Sekolah Berasrama Penuh residential schools and those who rely on school feeding programmes like Rancangan Makanan Tambahan and Program Sarapan Percuma. This creates an extra burden on already-struggling families who must contend with incomes losses and financial uncertainty.

The movement restrictions and closures of “non-essential” facilities can also worsen the day-to-day settings in which children grow and develop. Overcrowded and cramped living arrangements can expose children to higher risks of infections, psychosocial distress and even violence. Once again, this impact will be disproportionately felt by more disadvantaged groups.

Overburdened health systems, shortages of medical equipment and supplies, and reallocation of resources could also harm children’s access to healthcare. In the past, epidemics such as the Ebola outbreak disrupted the availability and quality of maternal, newborn and child care thus leaving children and pregnant women more vulnerable to usually preventable conditions.

These risks are especially heightened for pregnant mothers and children still in the critical 1,000-day period covering pregnancy and the first two years of the child’s life. It is during this window that a child’s growth and brain development is at its most sensitive to disruptions. Evidence shows that nutritional shocks within this crucial window can exert devastating and almost irreversible consequences to the child, both in the short and long run. Stunting - which reflects nutritional deficiencies during this crucial 1,000-day period ― can affect a child’s brain development, educational performance, future earning ability, and mortality and morbidity risks. Malaysia already has high rates of stunting - we can expect this to rise even further amidst this crisis.

Next steps

The recently announced initiatives do not address the burdens that poor families with children have to disproportionately shoulder due to Covid-19.

We need to plug this gap and the solution to this is simple: give cash.

The government should take steps to ensure that cash transfers are extended to these groups in particular:

  • children below the age of two years old within the 1,000-day window; and
  • recipients of school feeding programmes such as Rancangan Makanan Tambahan and Program Sarapan Percuma
  • We can do this by diverting reallocating existing budget resources from existing programmes that are on pause due to the movement control order such as school feeding programmes. There are also strong and pragmatic justifications for defunding uncritical ministries, as recently suggested by Christopher Choong of Khazanah Research Institute.

    These are pressing times and we need to act for the sake of our children to protect their present and secure their future.

    This article first appeared in The Malay Mail on 25 March 2020.